This is a reply to your beautiful and very honest blog post.
I have enjoyed following and reading your voice through the years, although I have by no means of reading every single blog you posted, I’m sorry. (You’re far too prolific and I’m far too busy). I do admire the candor you invariably display — what else could be expected of a writing project that goes by the title of Project Authenticity, but still — and it also helps to have briefly known you personally, well over a decade ago. When I read certain phrasings, I can still picture the spark in your eyes. I recall its brightness, and all the darkness smouldering underneath.
Now, you are a father, and you have shared, candidly as ever, your hopes and fears about this development in your life. More specifically, you have voiced your concerns about burdening your son with the shitload of unresolved issues you are still carrying around yourself.
I wanted to write an answer to some of the things you say. Not because I feel you are wrong and that somehow I know better, but because I understand where you are and I would like to reassure you a little. I’m betting you’ll make a very good father. You have already begun to be.
You’re worried about passing stuff on, things that have gotten under your own skin and that you feel you’re somehow unable to shed.
Do you realise that by writing down this raw list of fears and childhood memories, you are doing something your own father never could? Do you realise that by naming these things and calling them out, you are a major step ahead of repeating them, and so is your son?
You see, dear William, we are all a mess. Some of us might feel more broken or patched up than others, but we all experienced love, neglect and abuse in varying degrees and we are all still trying to make sense of that. We’re all scarred in ways other people can or cannot relate to. And we all want a better life for our children, if we care about them.
The things we experience in childhood become deeply ingrained in our bodies and minds, in our beliefs about the world and the people in it, and up to a point they determine how we act and behave as adults. This is why we so clearly repeat so many of our parents’ mistakes. The human mind, a man I appreciate once said, has great difficulty distinguishing the familiar from the good.
So we frequently do like we were taught, even if what was done to us hurt us and what we learned will hurt other people when we repeat it. We return to it because it is familiar — even if it is painful — since therefore it feels safe and is preferable over the unknown.
How to break this cycle?
You have already begun to do so. By consciously realizing so much of what is living inside you. Knowing your fears doesn’t solve them, to be sure, but it makes them less all-pervasive.
Dear William, as a parent you will inevitably end up doing and saying things to your son that you will regret. You will make mistakes. We all do. Welcome to parent life. The thing is: how do we own our mistakes?
What can you do, after you’ve fed your six-year old a beer or a grotesque horror movie, or after you have exploded in a bout of uncontrollable rage, like you seem to fear? You cannot undo what you did. But you can own up to it. There is an incredible power to an adult apologizing to a child and saying: ‘Look, I did *this* and I shouldn’t have. I made a mistake and I was wrong. I’m very sorry.’
You are right about parents’ unlived desires and life ambitions weighing on their children. Not because they are ambitions, but because they often go unspoken. The unsaid only grows stronger and gains more influence. Children feel there is something missing in the parent’s life, some want, some unresolved desire. Since the parent seems incapable of solving this for himself, the child sets out to do it for him. That’s how loyal children are.
What we can do as parents to protect our children from taking on our burdens or taking over our fears, is to own them for ourselves. To call them out, to name them and admit they are ours. And to let our children know that, too.
As adults, we often think we need to hide our fears and weaknesses from our children, but exactly by keeping quiet about them, we enhance them. An explosion of anger (or grief, or anxiety) from a parent is far more frightening to a child when it goes unexplained and his father is acting perfectly normal over breakfast the next morning.
Children, contrary to what we think, can handle and appreciate adult confessions like ‘I’m really not good at *this*, it’s something I am still trying to learn. And some days, I don’t do very well. So I’m sorry about what happened, I didn’t mean to take it out on you and it’s definitely not your fault, it’s just me trying to deal with that old demon.’
I know this requires a huge amount of honesty and authenticity. And most of all: vulnerability. But that’s how this works. Either you allow your son to see you naked, or you don’t.
So if there’s one advice I can give you, it’s this one: don’t just be authentic about your fears and your weaknesses on your blog. Be authentic about them to him, too. (In a language and a dosage fit for his age, please, but you’re a smart man, you’ll know.)
You will never be a perfect parent and there is no need to be. But be an honest one. Not just about the fun parts of your life, but also about the deep and scary stuff, so your son will learn to see your mishaps and mistakes for what they are: mishaps and mistakes, and part of your character or your personality. If he can recognize them as yours, he won’t feel he has to make them his.
Dear William, go hug your son and your beautiful wife. You end your blog with this line: I hope the world will be better enough because he was here.
I just want to say that it is because you are here, too.
Godspeed, my friend. Let this little soul that sailed into your life crack you open like nothing ever could.